Suing Government Agencies In New York: Appeal Brings Major Changes

By winning a recent appeal, AbramsLaw Group contributed to a significant change in New York law regarding lawsuits against government agencies. The advocacy of our New York City personal injury attorneys makes it easier for victims to hold government agencies accountable for negligence and wrongdoing in the city.

The Appellate Decision

In a unanimous decision by a panel of five judges, the Appellate Division, First Department of New York overturned its own precedent that had been the law for more than fifteen years. Cases that originated in Manhattan and the Bronx are appealed by the First Department.

Precedent is the legal concept that requires courts to adhere to prior court decisions. Once a court has ruled on an issue, it must apply the reasoning or rule established in that decision to future cases involving parties with similar facts and circumstances.

Section 50-e(2) of the New York General Municipal Law was at issue in this appeal. Before initiating a lawsuit against public entities, such as a municipality, a plaintiff is required by New York law to file a pre-suit notice under General Municipal Law section 50-e.

By its prior rulings, the First Department has interpreted Section 50-e as requiring plaintiffs to identify specific defendants in the pre-suit notice. It was insufficient to identify the government entity in its entirety. The language of the statute, however, does not include such a requirement.

In a recent opinion penned by First Department Justice Saliann Scarpulla, the court determined that its prior decisions were erroneous because they imposed a requirement not present in the plain language of the statute.

Background of the Case

The underlying case was filed by plaintiff Reginald Wiggins against the City of New York. In 2008, 16-year-old Wiggins was arrested in connection with a shooting. Prior to Wiggins’s arrest, witnesses had identified another individual as the shooter who was subsequently prosecuted. After his arrest, no witnesses in a lineup identified Wiggins.

Despite this, Wiggins spent over six years in Riker’s Island jail awaiting trial. Three of those years were spent in solitary confinement. Wiggins pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2014 and was given a 12-year sentence.

Wiggins’ conviction was overturned in 2018 by the New York Court of Appeals due to a violation of his constitutional right to a speedy trial. After his release, he planned to sue the City of New York for various wrongs related to his arrest and incarceration.

Wiggins named the City of New York as the defendant in his pre-suit notice as required by section 50-e. In his notice, no specific police officers were named.

When Wiggins ultimately filed his lawsuit, he named the City of New York and both named and unnamed NYPD officers as defendants. His complaint included a number of allegations of police misconduct and malicious prosecution.

The City moved to dismiss the complaint against the NYPD defendants on the grounds that the pre-suit notice was improper because it failed to identify specific officers. The court dismissed the case for failure to comply with General Municipal Law section 50-e, based on a precedent requiring the naming of specific defendants in the notice.

Wiggins was represented by AbramsLaw Group in his appeal of the dismissal of his case, which challenged a long-standing but unfair precedent.

Why This Case Matters

The precedent added a requirement to the statute that was not included in its language. If the legislature had intended for plaintiffs to identify each defendant separately, it would have included that requirement in the statute.

In prior decisions, when the court invented its own rule, it imposed an additional requirement on plaintiffs seeking redress for government wrongdoing. By eliminating this requirement and overturning that precedent, the law was returned to its original intent, and a barrier to justice was removed.

In addition, there was no need to identify individual defendants in the Second, Third, and Fourth Districts. This meant that New Yorkers living in different regions of the state would receive different court decisions. It is unfair to receive a different result depending on your location within the state.

It is difficult to alter a law with a long history. There are precedents for a reason. Typically, it aids in maintaining justice and uniformity in the law. To restore the public’s access to justice when courts have erred, however, prior rulings should be challenged when errors have been made.

Contact Our Personal Injury Law Firm

Contact Abrams Law Group for a free consultation if you’ve been hurt in an accident and require legal assistance.

Abrams Law Group
104-70 Queens Boulevard, Suite 502
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 997-9797

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